Throughout Elizabeth Bishop’s many travels, New York remained a natural hub for her to return to. The city became her temporary “home” at various times throughout her life. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bishop had a complicated relationship with the city that both inspired and tormented her in equal measure. After graduating from Vassar, Bishop saw New York as a threatening yet thriving literary scene; for an aspiring writer, it was the place to be. Her relationship with mentor poet, Marianne Moore, drew her to the city in the 1930s, and Moore’s influence on the young Bishop in the city was considerable. New York became the setting for many of Bishop’s poems, and her life in the city inspired many others. The ambitious poet was ultimately able to fully break onto the literary scene with the help of The New Yorker, which published her work from 1940 through the end of her life . However, Bishop often viewed New York as a dark, threatening environment, and she was rarely healthy living in the city. She suffered from severe asthma, chronic depression, and alcoholism, all exacerbated by the stresses of living in this urban environment. In the end, Bishop’s relationship with the city was paradoxical: her time in New York both made her and marred her. The city nurtured her as a poet but destroyed her mentally and emotionally. In the following pages, you can explore the many sides of Bishop’s relationship with the city.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Bishop, Elizabeth. Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Print.
Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker. Ed. Joelle Biele. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2011. Print.
Garner, Dwight. "Elizabeth Bishop, Fighting the New Yorker Over Extra Commas and
Steaming Cowflops." The New York Times. 8 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Aug. 2011.
Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1993. Print.
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert
Lowell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1993. Print.
Stevenson, Anne. Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop. Northumbumberland: Bloodaxe Books,
Ltd., 2006. Print.
Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1988. Print.
“Varick Street” (published 1947)
At night the factories
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Trying to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.
On certain floors
Pale dirty light,
some captured iceberg
being prevented from melting.
See the mechanical moons,
sick, being made
to wax and wane
at somebody’s instigation.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.
Lights music of love
work on. The presses
I suppose; the moons
or confectionery. Our bed
shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.
Bishop wrote “Varick Street” in the 1940s, after she had travelled more extensively but had also been wounded by love and life experiences. The setting of the poem is Bishop’s apartment tiny flat on King Street (that intersects Varick Street). The New York of “Varick Street” is even more sinister, suffocating, and surreal than the New York depicted in “The Man-Moth” and “Love Lies Sleeping.” “Love Lies Sleeping” is mostly a morning poem; although it ends in darkness, the first eleven stanzas of the poem depict the city waking to the dawn. “Varick Street,” in contrast, is a night poem. The grotesque factories come alive at night, threatening with their (possibly phallic) stacks, “veined with pipes.” The factories morph into nightmarish “elongated nostrils/haired with spikes.” They absorb the odors and give off their own horrendous stench simultaneously. The city is personified and depicted metaphorically in both “Love Lies Sleeping” and “Varick Street,” but the dreamy strangeness of “Love Lies Sleeping” is tame compared to the terrifying visions in “Varick Street.”
The night city in “Varick Street” is mechanical and thwarts any natural processes. Even the faint light becomes “dirty” as it is compared to “some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” There is no natural moonlight, but instead “mechanical moons,” controlled by man. The final stanza of the poem completes the utter industrialization of the city. In an echo of Shakespeare’s “If music be the food of love, play on,” Bishop echoes: “Lights music of love/work on,” employing even the lights and music that should joyously encourage love. The mechanical world of New York City traps the lovers.
While the Man-Moth and the lover in “Love Lies Sleeping” appear alienated and alone, the speaker of “Varick Street” lies next to her beloved; however, this relationship is doomed repeatedly in the inauspicious refrain: “And I shall sell you sell you/sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” In the New York setting, the speaker and her “dear” are trapped in a relationship of consumerism in which they will inevitably sell each other off. Amid the grotesque, nightmarish setting of industrial New York, they cannot remain uncorrupted and loyal. Their bed may “[shrink] from the soot,” but they cannot escape the “hapless odors” that seduce and embrace them, ultimately tearing the lovers apart. In this dismal poem, Bishop reveals that even once one has found love, it cannot shelter one against the threats of the city.
“Love Lies Sleeping” (written 1936, published 1938)
Earliest morning switching all the tracks
that cross the sky from cinder star to star,
coupling the ends of streets
to trains of light,
now draw us into daylight in our beds;
and clear away what presses on the brain:
put out the neon shapes
that float and swell and glare
down the gray avenue between the eyes
in pinks and yellows, letters and twitching signs.
Hang-over moons, wane, wane!
From the window I see
an immense city, carefully revealed,
made delicate by over-workmanship,
detail upon detail,
cornice upon facade,
reaching up so languidly up into
a weak white sky, it seems to waver there.
(Where it has slowly grown
in skies of water-glass
from fused beads of iron and copper crystals,
the little chemical "garden" in a jar
trembles and stands again,
pale blue, blue-green, and brick.)
The sparrows hurriedly begin their play.
Then, in the West, "Boom!" and a cloud of smoke.
"Boom!" and the exploding ball
of blossom blooms again.
(And all the employees who work in plants
where such a sound says "Danger," or once said "Death,"
turn in their sleep and feel
the short hairs bristling
on backs of necks.) The cloud of smoke moves off.
A shirt is taken of a threadlike clothes-line.
Along the street below
the water-wagon comes
throwing its hissing, snowy fan across
peelings and newspapers. The water dries
light-dry, dark-wet, the pattern
of the cool watermelon.
I hear the day-springs of the morning strike
from stony walls and halls and iron beds,
scattered or grouped cascades,
alarms for the expected:
queer cupids of all persons getting up,
whose evening meal they will prepare all day,
you will dine well
on his heart, on his, and his,
so send them about your business affectionately,
dragging in the streets their unique loves.
Scourge them with roses only,
be light as helium,
for always to one, or several, morning comes
whose head has fallen over the edge of his bed,
whose face is turned
so that the image of
the city grows down into his open eyes
inverted and distorted. No. I mean
distorted and revealed,
if he sees it at all.
Similar to “The Man-Moth,” “Love Lies Sleeping” presents a surreal view of New York through the eyes of a speaker waking to a summer morning. The first eleven stanzas of the poem depict the city in great detail; underneath this observation of the material world, however, there also lies a spirituality or otherworldliness. Bishop wrote in her notebook: “But [the spiritual] proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place. Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly…but even then the spiritual must be felt”(quoted in Kalstone 15), and in this poem as well as “The Man-Moth,” we see another side of New York, at times beautiful, at times surreal, and at times terrifying. As the speaker emerges from sleep, she describes the New York night blending into day. Dreamlike trains in the night sky fade out along with the neon signs and the “hangover moons.” In the morning light, the speaker is intent on describing in detail the emerging city. The “immense city, carefully revealed” becomes personified as it seems to yawn and stretch itself toward the skies. The city becomes even more surreal as Bishop describes, in a parenthetical aside, the city wavering:
(Where it has slowly grown
in skies of water-glass
from fused beads of iron and copper crystals,
the little chemical "garden" in a jar
trembles and stands again,
pale blue, blue-green, and brick.)
The city becomes beautiful, momentarily rising in the skies of “water-glass,” but it is still confined, a “chemical ‘garden’ in a jar.
In the next stanza, Bishop begins to reveal something threatening in the city through the loud “Boom!” that disrupts the sparrows’ play. Even the sleeping city workers feel a jolt of fear as the hair on the back of their necks rise instinctually as they slumber. The sounds of the poem remain just as disorienting when Bishop describes the “day-springs of the morning strike/from stony walls and halls and iron beds,/scattered or grouped cascades,/alarms for the expected.” The city dwellers are called awake, and sinister “queer cupids” set about their business feeding on lovers. The speaker has a sympathy for these city folk, “dragging in the streets their unique loves” and even entreats the “queer cupids” to be gentle, to “scourge them with roses only,/be light as helium.” The cupids seem to be at home in this surreal city, doing their daily work from sunrise to sunset.
Although the final stanza of the poem is a description of a victim of love whose head is hanging over the side of a bed, the speaker seems to empathize with this figure. This figure, ravaged by love in the city, is helpless as he views New York “inverted and distorted.” Bishop noted that she wanted her poetry to show “the mind thinking” (quoted in Millier 77), and the final lines of the poem reveal the speaker pondering this inverted view of the city. The city once again becomes highly surreal as it grows downward, but it is through this suffering man’s vision that the city becomes fully revealed in its utter distortion. Like the Man-Moth who seems to be at odds with the city yet rooted in it, so too is the man at the end of “Love Lies Sleeping” who sees the underside of New York. Both the lover in “Love Lies Sleeping” and the heroically striving Man-Moth (a poet figure perhaps) are sufferers in the city, and by the end of both poems, Bishop pushes us toward sympathetic identification with them. While the Man-Moth reaches out his hand to offer us his pure, nourishing teardrop, the lover in “Love Lies Sleeping” is detached from us, absorbed in his own vision. The final line of the poem is especially disturbing as Bishop shows the speaker continuing to think: Does the scourged lover see the city fully, or does he “[see] it at all”? In a parenthetical aside in a 1964 letter to Anne Stevenson (a friend and critic), Bishop wrote: “I think the man at the end of the poem is dead” (quoted in Harrison 61). In the end, the poem does not fully reveal whether this lover is an enlightened seer in the city or a dead man, and perhaps Bishop was unsure herself whether the city could be perceived in its fullness.
Critic, Victoria Harrison suggests that the meter of the poem reflects this irresolution at the end. She points out the somewhat regular stanzas that begin with a pair of (usually) pentameter lines and another pair of lines in trimeter, dimeter, or tetrameter. Harrison claims: “The order of the poem must be recognized concomitant with the disorder, the water wagon’s cleaning with the ‘peelings and newspapers’ in its path, the preparation of the evening meal with the cannibalism of our workaday lives” (61). Adding to Harrison’s analysis, it is also important to note that the disorder appears most in the last two lines of the stanzas where Bishop fluctuates between trimeter, dimeter, and tetrameter. These lines also act visually as an inversion of the longer opening pentameter lines. Through her form (playing with line lengths and meter), she is revealing the inverted, disordered city that lies beneath the other New York she is describing. It is in poems like “Love Lies Sleeping” that we see Bishop playing ingeniously with a natural rhythm. As noted before, her appreciation of the rhythm of a poem was influenced heavily by both Marianne Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In an article about Hopkins that she wrote at Vassar, Bishop praised his verse, which revealed: “the releasing, checking, timing, and repeating of the movement of the mind” (quoted in Kalstone 37). In “Love Lies Sleeping,” she reveals the “movement of the mind” through her purposeful line breaks and diction. The rhythm conveys the disordered inversion that lies beneath the surface of the city.
“The Man-Moth” (written 1935, published 1936)
Man-Moth: Newspaper misprint for “mammoth.”
cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.
Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
“The Man-Moth” was one of Bishop’s earliest New York poems. She described the composition of the poem:
The poem was written in 1935 when I first lived in New York City. I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be “mammoth.” But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment. (quoted in Harrison 58)
It is as much a poem about the city as it is a poem about Bishop sense of alienation in the city. In Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop, critic Anne Stevenson claims that the poem is “about how New York creates its own type of ‘hopeful monster’” (69). Above ground, man is unimpressive: “The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat./It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on.” Stevenson goes on to describe the Man-Moth as man’s “alter-ego…an alien, insect-like creature of whose existence Man is almost always unaware” (69). Although the Man-Moth is fruitless in his Sisyphean attempts to reach the moon, “thinking that this time he will manage to push his small head through that round clean opening/and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light,” he is heroic in his tragic attempts. The hopeful Man-Moth is drawn to the moon’s pin-prick of light as he tries to escape the confining, industrial city, but he is nevertheless drawn back into the bowels of the mechanized city with its “artificial tunnels.” Bishop reveals the Man-Moth’s sense of estrangement that he still feels when he returns to the “pale subways of cement he calls his home”: “The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way/and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,/without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort./He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.” The Man-Moth is the heroic romantic in the dirty, deadening streets, at odds with the “terrible” movement of the city.
Victoria Harrison compares the backward-facing Man-Moth to Bishop, who felt estranged and “different” in the city. She quotes a notebook entry of Bishop’s from the summer Bishop wrote the poem:
My friendly circumstances, my ‘good fortune,’ surround me so well & safely, & only I am wrong, inadequate. It is a situation like one of those solid crystal balls with little silvery objects inside: thick, clear, appropriate glass—only the little object, me, is sadly flawed and shown off as inferior to the setting. (quoted in Harrison 59)
Critic, Brett Millier, also reads the alienated Man-Moth as a representation of Bishop’s own anxieties living as a young poet in the city. She suggests that the poem exposes: “the terrible fear living in the city involves for the extrasensitive, who must nonetheless seek out and experience what she fears” (99). Coming from the sheltered environment of Vassar, Bishop at times saw New York as an urban nightmare. In Becoming a Poet, David Kalstone claims that Bishop associated a “seductive adult persona” with city life (32). The dark adulthood of the city is portrayed as a threat in “The Man-Moth” but any attempts to escape it through the small opening of the moon are futile. Bishop’s assimilation to the city and acknowledgement of her own independent life as an adult and poet were just as inevitable.
The final stanza of the poem urges the reader to sympathize with the cast-off Man-Moth. From his “dark pupil,/an entire night itself,” we are encouraged to reach out for his one gift, a tear that symbolizes his heroic suffering. Ignored, the Man-Moth will just subsist on his own cool tears, but if we identify with him, we will be given his only possession, “cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.” Bishop suggests that in the face of the city’s rawness and meanness, the one thing that can nourish us is sympathetic identification with others. The Man-Moth can be seen as a suffering artist (or poet) figure who produces the rejuvenating tear (art) for us if we are willing to see him and reach out a hand.
Bishop's First New York Poem
“The Map” (written 1934, published 1935)
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves' own conformation:
and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.
“The Map” was Bishop’s first New York poem, written during the bleak Christmas season of 1934. She was suffering from severe asthma and the flu at the time, so she ended up spending New Year’s Eve alone in her New York apartment. Bishop spent much of this lonely night examining her framed map of the North Atlantic that contained the Maritime provinces, Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia (Millier 77). In 1978, Bishop said in an interview:
My mother’s family wandered a lot and loved this strange world of travel. My first poem in my first book was inspired when I was sitting on the floor, one New Year’s Eve in Greenwich Village, after I graduated from college. I was staring at a map. The poem wrote itself. People will say that it corresponded to some part of me which I was unaware of at the time. This may be true. (quoted in Travisano 41)
As Brett Millier notes in her critical biography of Bishop, “The Map,” like much of Bishop’s later poetry, asks “semirhetorical questions of perspective” and reveals Bishop’s belief that poetry should reveal “the mind thinking” (77). She goes on to identify another central thread in Bishop’s later poetry: the preoccupation with changing perspectives and scale. The poem depicts both the map and the real geography it represents as two equally important realities. Millier also comments on Bishop’s eagerness to become as invested in the map as the printer, “experiencing the same excitement/as when emotion too far exceeds its cause” (77). Millier suggests that perhaps this emotion is the nostalgia and homesickness Bishop is feeling alone in New York at the start of a new year.
The poem reveals the start of Bishop’s life-long obsession with geography and physical landscapes (that would often provide access to interior, psychological terrain). As a poet of observation and detail, she was constantly concerned with perspective. Bishop discussed the poem’s origin in a 1948 letter:
A sentence in Auden’s Airman’s Journal has always seemed very profound to me—I haven’t the book here so I can’t quote it exactly, but something about time and space and how ‘geography is a thousand times more important to modern man than history’—I always like to feel exactly where I am geographically all the time, on the map,--but maybe that is something else again. (quoted in Millier 78)
Bishop’s need to root herself in a specific geography or location perhaps stemmed from her sense of displacement (growing up with relatives in Nova Scotia, Worcester, and Boston, going to college in Poughkeepsie, settling temporarily in New York City, and spending most of her life travelling).
The poem, written in a spare one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, reveals imaginative potential behind a seemingly ordinary object. The process of composition allows Bishop to travel the “long sea-weeded ledges” and ponder the relationship between the land and sea. She invests the map with emotional and psychological depth, morphing the landscape through simile as: “peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger/like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.” In Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, Thomas Travisano suggests that the map allows the speaker to travel vicariously, which nevertheless cannot fully satisfy the urge for lived experiences. Although she appreciates the “map-maker’s colors,” Travisano points out a “confinement of the mapmaker’s framed plane…Bishop might linger over the map-maker’s delicate colors, while only alluding to the material facts, but the material facts remain unchanged” (41-42). There is a longing and dreamy escape in “The Map” that is a product of Bishop’s early confining years in New York as she grappled with a sense of estrangement and homesickness. It wasn’t until Bishop had the opportunity to set off on real-life travels and explore the landscapes of Europe, Key West, and Brazil that she would infuse her poetry with detailed observations and considerations of actual landscapes along with imagined ones.
“I think that it is in the city alone, maybe New York alone, that one gets in this country these sudden intuitions into the whole of contemporaneity. You go for days reading the newspapers every morning, feeling a certain responsibility about all over, everyone’s, predicaments, making use of all inventions, ideas, etc., looking at modern pieces of art, buildings, scenery—and the sense of the present, the actual sensation of it like riding a surf board, never afflicts you. But then there are flashes, when you see all in a minute, what it is to be ‘modern’; when you catch it coming toward you like a ball, more compressed and acute than in any work of ‘modern art’; when you taste it concentrated, like a drop of acid” (quoted in Millier 82).
Bishop was drawn back to New York many times in her life, and she resided in several different apartments and hotels in the city. Although the city remained her magnetic North throughout her life, it was never a healthy setting for her. New York was the location of the deaths of several loved ones, and city life fueled Bishop’s depression and alcoholism throughout her life. Although it was the city where any aspiring writer would need a foothold, Bishop soon realized that the city was destructive as well.
In the fall of 1934, Bishop found her first apartment on the edge of Greenwich Village with the help of Mary McCarthy and her husband, Harold Johnsrud. Bishop was fresh out of Vassar when she rented this one-bedroom apartment at 16 Charles Street. Bishop saw New York as a city of opportunity where she could begin to make a name for herself as a young writer. Nevertheless, she approached the literary world of New York with some anxiety and trepidation. In 1934, she wrote to her long-time friend, Frani Blough: “Every day I start out firmly to ask someone to let me review poems for them. I get so scared that I have to stay home with diarrhea” (quoted in Millier 74). Bishop tried to spend Christmas Day with her close friend, Margaret Miller, and her mother, but Bishop suffered an extreme asthma attack (She was prone to asthma her entire life) and had to go back to her Charles Street apartment to spend the rest of the holiday alone. Brett Millier, an important biographer and critic of Bishop wrote about Bishop’s asthma: “It fed her sense of homelessness and sent her away from places she would rather have stayed. A self-proclaimed poet of geography, she often traveled specifically in search of air she could breathe. And so for Elizabeth—who had the means to travel—asthma was intimately tied up with the idea of ‘place’” (75). Bishop spent a depressing New Year alone subsisting on “adrenalin and cough syrup” (quoted in Millier 75), but it was on this lonely, bleak New Year that Bishop composed her first major New York poem, “The Map,” which would open her first collection, North and South.
After arriving home from Europe with Louise Crane in summer of 1936, Bishop returned to New York but had no concrete plans. She stayed with Louise and her family at their mansion at 820 Fifth Avenue; she then went to stay with Margaret Miller (another close friend) and her mother at 10 Monroe Street in Greenwich Village. Afterwards, she spent a few days at the Hotel Brevoort. Bishop passed the summer in Falmouth, MA, but she moved back to New York at the end of September, staying with the Cranes again. She then moved to the Hotel Chelsea until December 18th when she left for Florida with Louise and saw Key West for the first time. It was during this last stay in New York that Bishop received word that Bob Seaver, a boyfriend during her Vassar years, had committed suicide. Seaver was in love with Bishop and proposed marriage to her, but she turned him down, avowing that she would never marry (she was clearly more in love with Louise Crane and Margaret Miller at this point in her life). On November 21, 1936, Seaver shot himself, but before killing himself, he sent off his only “suicide note,” a postcard to Bishop that said: “Go to hell, Elizabeth” (quoted in Millier 112). The horrific news and the guilt Bishop felt began to take a toll on her, and a trip away from the cold environment of the city to the warm Florida sun must have been a relief for her.
In March of 1937, Bishop came home to New York. She rented a room at the Murray Hill Hotel at 41st Street and Park Avenue, which she would return to off and on throughout the next few years. Bishop was very anxious about her writing, and she often recorded her dreams, which revealed this unease. She had severe, painful dental work done, and she spent days recovering (Millier 121).
Bishop began the routine of summering in New York and wintering in Florida. (This travelling north and south would inspire the title of her first book, North and South, which came out in 1945.) The summer of 1939 was a difficult one for Bishop. She found an apartment on West 20th Street. There is not much information about the summer and fall of 1938, but Bishop later wrote about “troubles in New York” when her habits “changed drastically” (quoted in Millier 147). Critic Brett Millier notes that Bishop grappled with depression most of her life, and Bishop’s time in New York in 1938 was a low period (147). She was drinking heavily, and by 1939, her alcoholism was becoming an issue.
Bishop spent two months in the fall of 1940 and one month in 1941 in New York at the Murray Hill Hotel. Millier points out that Bishop’s drinking and depression was just as severe during this stay in New York, as Bishop referred again to her “New York troubles.” She was living alone at the Murray Hill hotel, which only worsened her drinking problem. She did not write any poetry in New York during this time. She was happy to return to Key West (Millier 162).
Bishop spent October and November at the Murray Hill Hotel. It was during this stay in New York that Bishop first met Lota de Macedo Soares, a wealthy Brazilian woman whom Bishop would later fall in love with and live with for years in Brazil. Marjorie Stevens, a woman Bishop lived with in Key West for a number of years, wrote to Bishop during this time, pleading with her to: “Be brave,” “Don’t get depressed,” “Don’t stay in New York,” “Don’t drink when you’re overtired” (quoted in Millier 170). Marjorie was very worried about Bishop’s mental and emotional health in New York and tried to draw her back to Key West by saying that she would get a job so Bishop could write full time. During this time, Bishop had trouble writing poetry and even wrote few letters (Millier 170).
After spending a long time in Key West, Bishop’s asthma forced her to return to New York in August of 1944. A friend, Loren MacIver, found Bishop a flat at 46 King Street. Bishop stayed in New York until February of 1945, but she remained unemployed. Bishop tried to lose weight, drink less, and remain stable, but she struggled. Bishop’s asthma continued to be a problem, and she went to see an allergist even. In conjunction with the worsening asthma, Bishop became more depressed and drank even more heavily. Marjorie Stevens implored Bishop to return to Key West after a dismal visit with Bishop in New York, but instead of heading south, Bishop stayed with a friend, Anna B. Lindsay, and searched out a psychotherapist in the city (Millier 173).
By December of 1944, Bishop had found a therapist (Dr. Jameson), who was only somewhat helpful. She left him shortly. During this time, Bishop was also unsure about her relationship with Stevens, and she was hesitant about returning to Key West. However, things began to look up when Bishop mailed her manuscript of North & South to Houghton Mifflin in January of 1945. Bishop wrote that she was: “much, much better,…almost human” (quoted in Millier 174) at this time. She left for Key West in February and got word in May that North & South had won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship. She returned to New York at the end of May (Millier 174).
In the winter of 1945-6, Bishop shuttled back and forth between New York and Key West as her relationship with Marjorie Stevens deteriorated. In the spring of 1946, Stevens’ letters suggest that Bishop’s drinking had worsened and that Bishop was seriously considering leaving Marjorie and Key West. Stevens finally ended the relationship, telling Bishop not to return south: “I don’t think you should consider it a possibility any more, for as long as you do you obviously aren’t going to adjust yourself to anything else…[We’ve been] trying to make something work that doesn’t” (quoted in Millier 179). Bishop remained in New York for a year and when she ultimately returned to Key West in the winter of 1947, she stayed with Pauline Hemingway (Millier 179).
Because of the instability in her life, Bishop started seeing a new psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Foster, in the spring of 1946. Foster was incapable of curbing Bishop’s drinking, but the doctor did have a significant impact on Bishop’s mental health at the time. Foster’s death a few years later in 1950 weighed heavily on Bishop (Millier 180).
Bishop spent time in New York off and on throughout 1947. The winter of 1947 was the first one in almost ten years that she had spent up north. She continued to suffer from asthma. It was during this time in New York that Bishop composed her bleak poem, “Varick Street.” Bishop claimed that the poem came to her in a dream with the repeated lines: “And I shall sell you, sell you/sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me” (Millier 189).
In the spring of 1947, Bishop first started seeing Dr. Anny Baumann, a general practitioner, who became Bishop’s go-to doctor for all of her ailments: her asthma, depression, and alcoholism (Millier 191).
After spending time in Nova Scotia, Washington D.C., Key West, and Haiti, Bishop returned to New York in April of 1949. She had been given the post of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, which Robert Lowell had helped secure for her. Her asthma was improving, but she still battled alcoholism. Bishop stayed at the Hotel Earle because her King Street flat was being torn down. Bishop saw doctors daily as she was “trying to get myself straightened out” (quoted in Millier 212). Bishop was anxious about the Library of Congress consultant position in Washington D.C. and worried as well about Robert Lowell’s deteriorating mental health (Millier 212).
In May, Bishop went to visit a friend she had traveled with, Jinny Pfeiffer, who was so disturbed by Bishop’s state that she drove Bishop to Blythewood, an upscale psychiatric rest home. Bishop remained at Blythewood for two months, recuperating before heading off to the Yaddo artist colony and then on to Washington D.C (Millier 214).
Bishop had spent time away from New York at Yaddo and also in Washington D.C., returning to New York in the spring of 1951. She sublet an apartment on East 69th Street from May 1-September 30. She continued to see Dr. Baumann regularly to cope with her asthma and, more often, her depression. In October, Bishop knew that she did not want to remain in New York, and after a delayed start, she set off for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on November 10. She left New York with a feeling of immense relief in the escape (Millier 235).
During her visit to Brazil, Bishop met up with Lota de Macedo Soares. After experiencing a violent allergic reaction to cashew nuts around Christmas of 1951, Lota nursed Bishop back to health, and the two women fell in love. Bishop decided to start a life in Brazil with Lota. The two women returned to New York in April of 1952 to get Bishop’s possessions. Critic Brett Millier reflects on the salubrious effect of Brazil on Bishop (as opposed to the destructive effects of New York):
[Bishop] would not live alone; she would not have to get a job (the income from her father’s estate would keep her in Brazil as it could not in the United States); she would be out of reach of the dissipating influences (and opportunities to exercise her habit of self-denigrating comparison) of the New York literary ‘scene’; and in the ‘timeless’ Brazilian world she would be free at last from the pace of New York, which had seemed to her a dizzying plunge toward loss and death (246).
Bishop found significant relief over the next ten years living with Lota in Brazil. The climate and companionship were conducive to her recuperation and writing. In September of 1952, Bishop wrote to Anny Baumann:
The drinking seems to have dwindled to about one evening once or twice a month, and I stop before it gets really bad, I think…I get to worrying about the past ten years or so and I wish I could stop doing that but…the drinking and the working both seem to have improved miraculously. Well no it isn’t miraculous really—it is almost entirely due to Lota’s good sense and kindness. I still feel I must have died and gone to heaven without deserving to, but I am getting a little more used to it (quoted in Millier 251).
Bishop and Lota spent six months in New York (April to October) with the purpose of seeing The Diary of Helena Morley published. Bishop noted that five years was the right amount of time away from the New York literary world. She saw many of her acquaintances and fellow writers, but she and Lota were relieved to return to Brazil in the fall (Millier 289).
Bishop and Lota returned to New York for five weeks, staying at Loren MacIver’s 61 Perry Street apartment in Greenwich Village. Bishop had been commissioned to write a volume on Brazil for the Life World Library series through Time, Inc. Books. Bishop had accepted the “pot-boiling” job (quoted in Millier 324) because she wanted to try her hand at journalism. She did not enjoy the project, writing slowly and often at odds with the subject matter Time expected. She was interested in flora and fauna while Time was more interested in people and politics. Bishop lagged behind deadlines, and when Bishop and Lota returned to New York with the manuscript in November, the stay was exhausting. Bishop was frustrated with the book she was being “forced” to write. Working doggedly in New York, she was glad to return to Brazil with the project finished and out of her hands (Millier 325-326).
After years living in Brazil with Lota, fault lines began to appear in their relationship. Lota became connected to Brazilian governor of Guanabara, Carlos Lacerda, and he appointed her as supervisor of a park project on the waterfront. Lota later became a city councilor and the overseer of Flamingo Park. Close with Lacerda, Lota became increasingly more embroiled in Brazilian politics, which drew her away from Bishop. Bishop, meanwhile, was appointed Fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1964. In 1966, Bishop (without Lota’s consent) agreed to take on the post of writer in residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. Returning from the U.S. in 1966, Bishop found Lota jealous and upset. Lota had a breakdown and had to be treated with insulin shock treatment. In January of 1967, Bishop went to a clinic to stop drinking. Her relationship with Lota was deteriorating, but she stayed in Brazil (Stevenson 145-148).
In early July, Bishop flew to New York against her own will but on the recommendation of Lota’s doctors. Lota would be unable to travel until the fall. When Bishop arrived at 61 Perry Street on July 4, the apartment was “dusty and depressing” and she was “terribly lonely” (quoted in Millier 393). Bishop was still getting over a case of dysentery from a previous trip in Brazil, and she had also gotten a concussion at Lota’s doctor’s home. As a result, Bishop suffered from dizzy spells, blackouts, and headaches (Millier 393). Bishop felt out of place in the Greenwich Village of 1967, but she spent time on Long Island with friends and rested at Jane Dewey’s farm in Havre de Grace. Bishop’s social life picked up in New York that summer, but in August, Bishop heard from Lota’s doctors that she should not travel until December at the earliest even though Lota seemed healthier in letters and on the phone (Millier 394-395).
In early September, Lota cabled Bishop and asked to come to New York. Bishop was lonely and wanted to see Lota, so she agreed to the visit. Bishop tried to get in touch with Lota’s doctors but received no reply from them. Lota came to New York on September 19, not appearing entirely healthy. In a letter to Anny Baumann, Bishop noted that she and Lota had a “peaceful and affectionate” evening (quoted in Millier 395) before falling asleep. During the night, however, Lota overdosed on tranquillizers, and by the time Bishop woke up and found her, Lota was almost dead. After being admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, Lota remained in a coma for five days before dying. She was fifty-seven. Although Lota overdosed on Valium, which should not have killed her, she also suffered from arteriosclerosis and heart problems, which most likely killed her in the end (Millier 395). Bishop felt considerable guilt over Lota’s death and tortured herself for many years.
Away from New York for several years, Bishop returned in the spring of 1970 when she stopped in to see Anny Baumann in the midst of traveling to Rotterdam. Bishop was not well, and Baumann sent Bishop to a specialist. Bishop’s diagnosis was four different strains of dysentery that she had been carrying around for months. Bishop recuperated and received treatment at the Hotel Elysee before leaving for Boston to be with her new romantic attachment, Alice Methfessel (Millier 446).
Bishop spent Christmas alone at the Cosmopolitan Club in New York as Alice spent the holiday with family. Bishop was at the Cosmopolitan Club ten days, drinking, recovering, and socializing. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, she lay in bed and described as “very dismal” (quoted in Millier 456).
Bishop had acquired a part-time teaching position at NYU for the fall of 1977. While packing up her belongings, she heard from Frank Bidart (a fellow friend and poet) about Robert Lowell’s untimely death of a heart attack in a New York taxi on the way from the airport. Again, New York was the setting of the death of a loved one (Millier 531).
In September, Bishop started her teaching job at NYU, but the commuting between her job and her life with Alice in Boston became too much. The teaching job was disappointing, especially since Bishop spent Wednesday through Sunday in Boston, away from the city and her teaching life. She continued to struggle with depression and alcoholism too. By the end of the semester, Bishop was sick and hospitalized with internal bleeding from her hiatal hernia. Bishop gradually recuperated by the end of February (Millier 534). This was her final major stay in New York before her death in Boston in 1979.